Helene Hanff’s Legacy

“Live always in the best company when you read.”—Sydney Smith

My first encounter with Helene Hanff’s story, 84, Charing Cross Road, was the 1987 film version. I thought that a long-distance correspondence between two people who never met was unusual Hollywood fare. But a chaste film about about a passion for books, especially classic works written before the 20th century, is remarkable. The movie version adds some depth and humor to the original, though the producers indulge in artistic license that is frivolous on a couple of points. But that’s Hollywood. Read the book and garner your own impressions of this slightly zany collection of letters between an outspoken New York screenwriter and a reserved English used book dealer (Frank Doel).

The book’s undoubted appeal lies not in any profundity, but in its spontaneous charm and discriminating taste. Hanff reminds us of why we read, because the correspondence is more than “just books”—it’s revealing of the people who love them and why. At the same time, Hanff provides a perfect “wish list” of authors including John Henry Newman, Charles Lamb, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Savage Landon, Leigh Hunt, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

Cardinal Newman rates high with Hanff, if only for his impeccable style. She’s also one to appreciate the dignity of ancient tomes:

The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it . . . . I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home; it wants to be read by the fire in a gentleman’s leather easy chair—not on a secondhand studio couch in a one-room hovel in a broken-down brownstone front.

A few years later, Hanff wrote a companion volume entitled Q’s Legacy, about how “Q” (English author and critic Arthur Quiller-Couch) ignited her interest in literature. But Hanff has surely established a small legacy of her own, helping to perpetuate what Russell Kirk called “the moral imagination” of Western culture.

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